FOCUS IS CELEBRATING ITS 25TH ANNIVERSARY SO WE HEADED OUT TO GERMANY’S BLACK FOREST TO MEET ITS FOUNDER MIKE KLUGE AND RIDE THE COMPANY’S MOST RADICAL BIKE YET, THE PARALANE≤
As Focus Bikes turns 25, we head to its German HQ to chat to founder Mike Kluge and ride the company’s most radical bike yet, the Paralane2.
During his racing career in the 1980s and ’90s, founder of Focus Bikes, Mike ‘the Bike’ Kluge was a step apart from the typical rider. He was as obsessive about preparing his body as other riders, but he was just as obsessive about the preparation of his bike. He badgered sponsors with suggestions to improve his bikes and looked to find an advantage by using new or unconventional equipment. And his approach worked, winning the amateur world cyclo-cross championships twice and again as a fully-fledged pro, along with numerous other victories on the national and international road, mountain bike and track cycling circuits
During his pro career Mike decided to start building his own bikes, and make the improvements he was looking for in the equipment he was using. So, he and two friends set up shop in a modest garage in Germany’s famous Black Forest and Focus Bikes was born.
Mike still owns the garage, which is stacked floor to ceiling with some of the most interesting parts, frames and racing paraphernalia from his racing and manufacturing career. We spotted an ultra-rare Corima Fox monocoque TT frameset, which was banned by the UCI, his Alan cyclo-cross bike with a Magura hydraulic rim brake on the front and the original jersey he won the world cyclo-cross champs in, not framed and pristine, just draped over a frame and still bearing decades old dirt.
“I always loved to race,” explains Mike. “The competition was tough, so along with training hard and being focused, I wanted to make sure my bike was as good as I could make it. In cyclo-cross I was the only one using Magura’s hydraulic rim brake – I had a custom-made lever for drop bars – and with this on the front I could outbrake my rivals. The Magura brake worked in the wet, whereas cantilevers didn’t. “Later on, I took a butterfly-shaped shifter that Sachs used to make for touring bikes and mounted it on my race bike’s bar. With this I could shift without taking my hands off the bar, in the days before STI or Ergolevers, whereas my rivals still had to reach down to levers on their down-tubes,” he continues.
Try something new
“I’ve always believed in new technology,” says Mike. “That’s how I ended up mountain bike racing. I’d been very successful in cyclo-cross and had taken some time out to go surfing in California. My sponsors called me back to Berlin to consider mountain bike racing. I liked the idea; I was technically good at handling a bike and to me a mountain bike just seemed like a cyclo-cross one with bigger tyres. I gave it a try and then won the World Cup in 1990. By 1992 I was even doing downhill racing.
“But racing is hard: you train hard, you have to eat healthily and live your life cleanly. You’re young and want to party with friends, but you have to make sacrifices. The last thing I wanted was for the bike to let me down, so I became interested in making each one I rode as good as possible.”
It was during his pro career that Mike decided to start building his own bikes
That’s ultimately what led Mike and his friends to set up Focus in 1993. Mike sold the company to giant Derby Cycle group later that year, which has since come under the ownership of Pon Holdings along with the likes of Cervélo, Santa Cruz, Kalkhoff and others.
After a few years away from Focus, Mike returned to work for the brand. “I feel so connected to Focus and I love the way it has stuck to my original approach: to innovate, to accept new ideas and make bikes affordable for racers and riders alike. It’s my baby still so sometimes I can be too critical, but we all care, which is good for us all.”
Change is a good thing
While Focus isn’t the most vocal of brands when it comes to its heritage and innovations, look back and you’ll find plenty of both. The original Izalco frame set new benchmarks for weight and stiffness, and the Izalco Max from 2014 was one of the first frames to use different tube dimensions and shapes between sizes to ensure a small frame would have exactly the same ride characteristics as a large one. That year’s 760g-framed Izalco Max also had a 295g fork that managed to be particularly strong for its weight thanks to its construction from continuous carbon fibre strands. Even now, four years later, precious few brands can touch that.
Focus was among the first brands to introduce disc brakes to its road bikes. Not only that but its Mares CX bike set the standard for disc-equipped cyclo-cross bikes, a standard that bigger rivals are only just starting to meet. Then there is the RAT [Rapid Axle Technology] thru-axle. Focus understood that for road racing the standard threaded thru-axle would take too long to remove. Its solution was the quarter-turn quick-release, which is still the fastest way to get disc-brake wheels in and out of road bikes. Mike expands on the subject of disc brakes. “For me, it’s about safety. Pro racing is slow to adapt, but cyclo-cross was much quicker to change. To be able to slow down and stop on point makes for a racing advantage, but also a safety one. Of course, you don’t need that power and control all the time but it’s good to have it when you need it, like in the rain on descents. “Innovation leads to a lot of people complaining. I’m from a time when riders complained about helmets, but I’m sure helmets have saved my life or just my head from serious damage [Mike has fractured a few vertebrae in his time]. Riders who complain about discs now are the same. I’ve had times where disc brakes have saved me from serious injury or worse. I think a lot of these people will sound stupid in some years time.”
Focus was among the first brands to introduce disc brakes to its road bikes
All of which brings us to the reason we’re here – to get an exclusive look at the new Focus Paralane2. The Paralane is one of the original
all-road machines in the vein of the GT Grade or Cervélo C series – a bike that blurred the boundaries between endurance road and gravel, a bike you could take pretty much anywhere. This new one, however, adds power assistance into the mix. You can almost hear the purists gnashing their teeth at the prospect.
For me, e-bikes are one thing – I use one to commute on my 60-mile round trip to the office when I’m not testing bikes. But a ‘performance’ e-bike? Well, that’s something else. I asked Mike about the whole power-assisted race bike thing.
“I did think a little like you originally. But on the days when I’m riding alone and maybe not so motivated I can take my e-mountain bike. Not far from my house there’s a mountain that’s 1200m high with trails all over it. Even as a pro some of those trails were too steep to ride, but with the e-bike I can explore the mountain at my leisure and found so many new trails as a result. It makes me happy. On the Paralane2 I can ride forest tracks and fire roads in the same way, the sort of roads that I may not have been able to access on my original Paralane.”
Product manager Mark Grunert sees the Paralane2 as a “light, agile bike that gives you that extra push when you need it. We wanted to go in a different direction to normal e-bikes, we wanted it to help riders achieve their unachievable.”
The new bike began life as ‘Project Y’ and Focus saw it as a reaction to the obsession with ever-increasing power outputs in the e-bike market. Mike explains: “E-bikes were moving more towards motorbikes and away from cycling. Project Y was our choice to take a different fork in the road and head in a new direction.”
Focus thinks the people most likely to buy the Paralane2 are either riders that are already riding performance e-mountain bikes or those looking to do serious exercise without constantly being on the rivet. All that’s on top of the usual e-bike selling points of being something that enables riders of all abilities and ages to ride together.
The priority for Focus was to make the Paralane2 light. It teamed up with fellow German company Fazua, making e-bike systems born out of a university project. The name is Bavarian slang for ‘go on’. The Fazua system provides a hearty 60Nm/400W of assistance but is minimal compared to established e-bike power units from the likes of Bosch and Shimano. The real surprise is that the Fazua unit (motor, battery and bottom bracket) weighs just 3.5kg, meaning our medium-sized (54/56cm) test bike tipped the
scales just shy of 13kg. Yes, that’s heavy for a road bike but light for an e-bike.
There’s another trick up the Paralane2’s sleeve – you can remove the battery and motor from the down-tube so you’re left with a 10kg road bike. If you’re happy to leave the system in place and ride without power assistance, there’s no drag from the power unit, unlike most other e-bikes.
Building in the boost
Integrating the Fazua system was a difficult process, as Focus wanted the Paralane2 to be a bike that could be ridden with or without it in place. That meant it had to be strong enough to handle the weight and stresses of a power unit but maintain the same ride qualities and geometry as a normal, non-powered Paralane. Composites engineer Paul Sadowski explained how they set out to achieve that.
“We used many more high-strength fibres in the down-tube, bottom bracket and head-tube. We needed the down-tube to be able to resist buckling and torsional twisting as it’s not a closed tube anymore. We solved it with materials and by using specific orientations of the fibres. We did eight weeks of testing on fibre orientation on the front triangle alone in our production facility in Asia, and that was on the back of the engineering research we undertook in Germany. The most important thing is that it had to feel like a Paralane, a bike we’re already proud of.”
The most important thing is that it had to feel like a Paralane, a bike we’re already proud of
The Paralane2 frame uses over 500 plies of carbon, over 30 per cent more than the standard Paralane. It weighs 1450g, which, when you consider all the extra material for the motor and battery mounts, and increases in strength, is a pretty impressive achievement.
The Fazua motor uses a bottom bracket that’s 3mm wider on each side than a traditional road unit. But after building prototype frames around it and putting them through thousands of kilometres of testing, Focus found that the extra width on the driveside compromised shifting. Rather than come up with a quick fix, designers joined forces with DT Swiss to bring Boost technology – a wider hub spacing found on mountain bikes running plus-sized tyres – to the road. This new standard increases the spacing between the dropouts to 148mm at the rear and by 10mm at the front to 110mm for balance, and uses RAT thru-axles. Focus claims the Boost and RAT combination adds stiffness and durability to the wheels and provides an optimal chainline to ensure smooth shifting and longevity. The Paralane2 officially has clearance for 35mm tyres, which may be big for the road market but isn’t exactly generous when you consider the clearances typically found on gravel bikes. According to Mark Grunert you can get 38mm tyres in the frame, but it depends on what rims you use. “We state 35mm to be safe, but you can go bigger,” he says.
I have to admit, I was sceptical of the Paralane2. I could see the point of it but it didn’t strike me as something I, or many of the people I know,
would want. I like e-bikes for transport, as a utility tool; but I’m not so sure about using one for sport. Spending time with Mike, his openmindedness and willingness to try new things starts to rub off. So before long he and I head out on a pair of Paralane2s – me on the Ultegra Di2equipped 9.8 and Mike on the more modest, 105-equipped 9.6.
Our initial spin’s on the flat, so there was no need for any power assistance. And I’m happy to report that it felt… well, just like a normal bike. The extra weight of the motor and battery are low down so aren’t an issue when you’re rolling along. As we turned onto a singletrack road that steepened quickly and severely, I engaged the power assistance.
The bar-mounted control unit offers four power levels – white/off, green/ low, blue/medium and pink/full. I pressed the button to switch from white to green and slowly became aware of a small push feeding in to help me maintain my cadence and keep climbing.
The next section had a loose, gravel surface and was even steeper, so I upped the ante to blue. With the medium power setting you get a little bit more speed but it’s introduced unlike any other system I’ve tried. It felt weirdly natural and was also extremely quiet, with none of the electric motor whine I’ve come to expect. The power comes in gradually, and it felt like it was working with me rather than for me. Other e-bike systems I’ve used seem to take over, as if they’re powering the bike and you’re the one assisting. With the Paralane2 and its clever Fazua motor, it always felt as if I was the one in charge.
It felt weirdly natural and was extremely quiet, with none of the electric motor whine I’ve come to expect
On the loose gravel the bike felt planted, largely because the extra go it gives you means you’re free to concentrate on shifting your bodyweight to maintain traction, rather than just trying to do that while worrying about pedalling. It was as if the bike really was helping me to keep going where I wanted to go. Then we hit a proper climb – a mountain ascent with varying gradients, switchbacks and a lot of vertical gain. For fun both Mike and I switched to maximum power and let the bikes go into the red. It’s an amusing, and somewhat addictive, sensation holding a minimum of 16mph on an Alpine-style ascent. And nothing feels stranger than having to coast or even brake through an uphill hairpin because you’re moving so quickly. Don’t get me wrong, you still have to put the effort in and a climb like this is still going to make you sweat. The important thing is just how much it feels like ‘proper’ cycling even when you’ve got the power on full.
Remove the fear
I can see the Paralane2 being a big help for riders looking to build their cycling confidence for longer, bigger rides. Rather than sitting at the bottom of a hors-category climb thinking, ‘That’s not for me’, with the Paralane2 you’ll be
more willing to have a go, and you’ll probably succeed. I’d go so far as to say that knowing you’ve got that power assistance to back you up, you’ll be more inclined to try and go further without it.
We reached the top of the ascent and began to head back down just as a Black Forest thunderstorm hit. On the six-mile descent, the Paralane2’s balance felt different to a standard bike as so much of its weight is in the down-tube. Hammering downhill on a bike with this sort of weight balance felt odd to begin with, but you quickly get a feel for its solidity and stability. Before long I was hitting corners and braking as late as I would on my standard bike, and riding with enough confidence to push to the limits I’m comfortable with.
Checking my Garmin when we reached the bottom, I saw we clocked a top speed of 52.7mph and a total ride distance of around 50 miles. It’s hard to judge the absolute range of the Paralane2’s power unit as it really depends on how much you’re using the assistance, but after our ride three of the 10 charge indictor lights were still illuminated so I’d guess you could easily get a long day’s ride from a single charge. Even if the battery does run out, the Paralane2 still rides like a standard,
For fun both Mike and I switched to maximum power and let the bikes go into the red
if slightly heavy, bike, so it’s not the end of the world. In my admittedly short time with the Paralane2, it won me over. I couldn’t see a place for it initially, but now I can. Would I buy one? At the moment, probably not, but would I buy one for my 70-year-old cyclist mum? Definitely (price permitting). And should the time come when I get older and I can no longer ride to the places I love to go now, I’d absolutely consider buying one, without even a hint of embarrassment about the artificial assistance it provides. The Paralane2 enhances the ride experience as it broadens your horizons of the terrain you can tackle. As we’ve got in so early, prices for the Paralane2 models have yet to be confirmed. While I’m happy to give my verdict on the bike, I can’t give it a rating without knowing how much it costs. The fun I had out on it made for a fivestar day of riding.
It feels like ‘proper’ cycling even when you’ ve got the poweronfull
Warren gets an insight in to the latest Focus model
Mike’s passion for innovation is seen throughout the Paralane2
The staff care about the bikes they design and the technology involved A sceptical Warren was happy to be proved wrong about power assistance
You can remove the battery and motor from the down-tube so you’re left with a 10kg road bike
MIKE ‘THE BIKE’ KLUGE
The Focus is a lot of fun, whether riding power assisted or not Xxxx xxxx xxxx Xxxx xxxx
The Fazua power unit can be removed if you want to ride unassisted
Various spec grades will be on offer, we tested the Shimano Ultegra Di2 model